In 1984 Prefab Sprout, a group from the North East of England, released a debut LP “Swoon” on the small local label Kitchenware. “Swoon” had a lo-fi indie credibility made distinctive by its angular, sometimes discordant rhythms allied to the thoughtful, sometimes leftfield lyrics of songwriter Paddy McAloon. “Cruel” in particular, a commentary on the complicated rules of attraction in the early 80s, absolutely hit the spot. Paddy Mac was obviously a logophile, there were plenty of words, maybe too many for pop music. The group’s ambition & expansive range made them ones to listen out for. Alongside the Blue Nile’s “A Walk Across the Rooftops” & Aztec Camera’s “Knife”, “Swoon” was the pick of young intelligent British music in 1984. My friends bought these records, maybe your friends did but it was Wham! & Frankie Goes to Hollywood who were shifting the big units.
CBS signed up Prefab Sprout. The 2nd LP “Steve McQueen” (in the US “Two Wheels Bad”) was still on Kitchenware but it was the major label that matched them with producer Thomas Dolby & picked up the tab. The pairing did the trick. Dolby imposed a greater structure to the songs & provided spare, sympathetic synthesizers. “Steve McQueen” is a terrific collection of beautifully crafted tunes & CBS promoted the heck out of it. “When Love Breaks Down”, an obvious chartbound sound, was released as a single twice, bonus tracks, 12″ & double 7″. It barely grazed the UK Top 30 while the LP reached #21, just 1 higher than “Swoon”.
On “Steve McQueen” McAloon & Dolby aimed for the perfect pop song & got very close. It’s a list…”Desire As” (6 things on my mind, you’re no longer one of them), “Goodbye Lucille #1” (you’re still in love with Hayley Mills…boom !), “Appetite” (a great lyric, a monumental chorus). Perhaps the pop culture references were too esoteric, the wordplay too knowing, the music too restrained, even melancholic. I’m the wrong guy to ask, I think it’s an enduring achievement & it’s a mystery that it failed to find a wider audience.
Paddy had a big song stash & a succeeding LP “Protest Songs” was quickly recorded but shelved for 4 years. It was hot dogs, jumping frogs, cars & girls, radio-friendliness & quick-cut MTV videos which put “From Langley Park to Memphis” (1988) high in the UK charts. “The King of Rock & Roll” was in the UK Top 10 alongside Aztec Camera while Scritti Politti were close behind. The stylish Indie boys from 4 years before were having to sell some records. There were 5 singles released from an LP that was good but a little pale after “Steve McQueen”. Prefab Sprout did the rounds of UK kids TV shows & Euro-interviews (Pray-fab Sproot !) but never looked comfortable as pop stars. This was their commercial peak but there was still another great record to come.
While “Protest Songs”, a very worthwhile record, came & went Paddy was back recording with Thomas Dolby. The resulting LP “Jordan:The Comeback” (1990) is the full Sprout, the mature magnum opus that fans knew Paddy Mac always had in him. It has the range of a Broadway musical (I’ll mention Gershwin here, everybody else does when writing about his songs), the whiff of a concept album with a suite of songs about Elvis Presley, “the boy who caused a fuss” & Jenny Agutter whispering “I want to have you”. The 19 tracks encompass varied styles, all assuredly realised with no hint of pastiche. “Scarlet Nights”, a consummate pop confection, lightens the mood after a trio of tunes with religious imagery. It is followed by “Doo Wop in Harlem”, a perfect, ethereal closer to a great collection.
In the 25 years since it’s release “Jordan:The Comeback” has often made it to the back of the stack. Not any more, I reach for it regularly. Paddy McAloon is a member of the first rank of British songwriters of popular music. I listen to this record & appreciate the thought, emotion & craft of his work. The live clips from this time show Paddy, brother Martin, Wendy & drummer Neil augmented by other musicians but they are either miming on children’s TV or are ragged transfers from VHS. Here are a couple of the “Elvis” songs…
It would be 7 years before another Prefab Sprout record. Paddy was still prolific, he wrote for fellow Geordie Jimmy Nail & pop poppet Kylie recorded a mean version of “If You Don’t Love Me”. He was never really suited to be a songwriter-for-hire. Health problems, failing eyesight & tinnitus limited public performance. In 2003 there was a solo project, “I Trawl the Megahertz”, subsequent records have been released from demos & as the finished article. There are songs of quality & interest on all of these releases. If you don’t know this music & you like well-crafted, thoughtful, melodic tunes then “Steve McQueen”is a perfect entry point to the Sprout. The rest of their work will reward further listening too.